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We Must Deal With Anti-Muslim Vitriol, But The Label 'Islamophobia' Is Not Helping

23/06/2017 11:10

Muslims are experiencing soaring levels of hate-crime and experiencing targeted, prejudiced attacks across the world. Every day, they are vilified and misrepresented in the press, and not just the tabloids. Don't believe me? Look through some editions of the Daily Mail and substitute "Islam" and "Muslim" with "Judaism" and "Jew", then see if you still feel comfortable.

Despite that, I don't use the term "Islamophobia", a term the dictionary defines as "dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force." Islam, like any religion, is formed of ideas, and as such, should be allowed to be "disliked". No set of ideas should be off-limits from discussion, critique, and even mockery. There are parts of Islam that I think are beautiful and awe-inspiring. But even in mainstream interpretations of Islam, there are also some elements that as a liberal (and a de facto atheist), cause me concern. Concerns that in-depth discussions and debates with my Muslim friends have failed to assuage. I have an open mind that I could be proved wrong about these conceptions in the future and I hope that I will; but this is not the time or place for those discussions.

Details are still emerging of the incident, but assuming the situation is as it appears to be, the Finsbury Park Mosque attack was both an appalling, prejudiced, hate-crime and a terrorist attack. Contrary to the implications of Theresa May's statement, that does not mean that "disliking" Islam should automatically be considered extremism too. People must be free to dislike ideas, even when those people are wrong. "Islamophobia" is a cumbersome word, understood in different ways by different people. I'm all too aware that the criticism I've made of the term, is one that is also propounded by those on the extreme right. And as such, they bat off such labels without addressing the gravity of anti-Muslim prejudice. As society polarises, there has never been a greater need to find nuance in debate.

The vilification of Muslims potentially poses a much greater threat to liberal society than both acts of terrorism supposedly committed in the name of Islam, and the illiberal parts of mainstream Muslim belief. I've lost more than a bit of sleep over Donald Trump's presidency, a man who has risen to ultimate power partly thanks to his cynical manipulation of anti-Muslim sentiment. And then there's top aide Steve Bannon, founding member of Breitbart, known for its right-wing fake news and widely linked to white nationalist movements. He was able to do this, despite the fact that comprehensive research conducted by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security found that anti-government right-wing extremism is considered by law enforcement agencies to be a more severe threat to security than radicalised Muslims.

The tragic events of Finsbury Park were far from an isolated incident. Anti-Muslim violence continues to rise worldwide. Less than 24 hours before Finsbury Park, a 17-year-old Muslim girl was murdered on her way home from a Virginia Mosque in an apparent hate-crime. Anti-Muslim prejudice can be quiet as well as loud, reports of vandalism, online bullying, and street intimidation are commonplace. There can be no excuses and no justifications. As always, the brunt of the responsibility needs to fall on the individual in question, but after that, tabloid newspapers profiting from the promotion of bigotry have got some serious questions to answer.

Many Muslim heroes emerged this week. From those risking their lives to help in Grenfell Tower to the crowd who protected Darren Osborne even after his brutal crime. Jo Cox' message of unity needs to be shared now more than ever. Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and people of all beliefs should take solace in the truth that there are more of us with open hearts and minds than those with closed and violent ones.

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